Hugo Rifkind

Thank God for Sir Philip Green, the perfect modern hate figure

Hating him is easy. It’s rather harder to see what he’s done that isn’t basically business as usual

Thank God for Sir Philip Green, the perfect modern hate figure
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Good old Sir Philip Green. Where would we be without him? So often, those national hate figures let you down. That lady who put a cat in a bin in 2010, for example. Bit of a tragic loony, in the end. Likewise Tony Blair. Not this one. His diamond has no flaw, and we can all join in. He’s perfectly awful in every way.

He looks the part, too. Rich-guy hair, of the sort most rich guys don’t deign to have any more. Nonexistent at the front, lacquered and far too long at the back. Brilliant. Clothes that don’t quite fit, because he clearly pays a stylist to tell him they do. Graydon Carter’s description of Donald Trump — ‘short-fingered vulgarian’ — fits him like, well, a glove.

There is snobbery in the debasement of Sir Philip. Yes, I know he rode BHS into the ground and then scarpered, and all the rest, but come on, you know it’s there. Were he a tall, clear-skinned, Brylcreemed Old Etonian rampaging capitalist vampire bastard, then the hate would have a wholly different shape. He’d sit in our minds as a Bond villain or an oligarch. Instead, he’s there as a sort of counter-jumping ITV2 cash-hoovering spiv; less Goldfinger, more Doshfinger. Gloriously though, that’s all validated, because he seems to have no social-climbing pretensions at all. He acts, shouts and lives like a yobbo done good, and so class-ridden Britain gets to call him one and not feel bad about it.

Nobody has his back. And while in other circumstances this might make him the plucky outsider, the guy who soared and soared despite the establishment never giving him a break, that’s clearly not true either, what with the knighthood. Plus, he doesn’t even have an intimidatingly attractive wife, nor one unattractive enough to make you suspect he must secretly be a good person. There’s literally no reason not to hate him as much as you can.

There’s no PR here. That’s what I love. Or if there is, he must be doing it himself. Three yachts. Three. One 100ft, one 200ft and one 300ft. That’s 600ft of yacht which, put end to end in the bay of Monaco, might also be the only 600ft stretch in Europe without a Topshop. I love the way he’ll brazenly tell people he moved to Monaco not for the tax breaks, but the schools (the schools! Just like us moving to Crouch End!) And I love, love, love the way that, with his reputation collapsing around him, with MPs literally calling him ‘evil’ (Frank Field) and baying for his knighthood (also Frank Field) and with tabloids panting for his blood, where does he go?

Not to a discreet hotel, or a compound, with high walls and security guards. No, no. He goes on to his biggest, newest yacht. He goes on to a vast floating platform a short pedalo ride away from places the paparazzi can get by easyJet. There was a day last week when it was being stalked by speedboats from both This Morning and the Sun, and he had to send out crewmen on jetskis to chase them away. What a nutter. This while a steady drip of dreadful stories fill up the silly-season newspapers. The one about the granny of seven working in BHS, at whom he shouted ‘I own you!’ because she didn’t recognise him. (Bit unfair; might he not have just meant the shop?) The one about the big golden Buddha statue he’s just bought for his main yacht’s main deck. (Misconception? Maybe just him?) The one about him eating a child’s pet cockatoo, live, beak and all. (Which I might just have made up.) And does he hide? Does he balls. He stands around drinking beer in his swimming shorts while his wife bursts out of a kaftan on a sun-lounger nearby.

Righteous animosity rarely comes so pure. To be honest, though, I still don’t really understand what it is he’s supposed to have done that capitalism hasn’t always done eight times every day before breakfast. We all knew BHS was going down the pan, as evidenced by the way nobody who didn’t work for it had been in a shop since 2003. I wouldn’t claim to comprehend how he managed to wring three yachts out of it as it slid, but I daresay it evidenced a certain genius that, while maybe evil, is still something that the bulk of his detractors neither possess nor could properly understand, even if it were explained with child-friendly diagrams.

In its own way, the fury at Sir Philip Green is Trumpism, or Corbynism; just another rage against the machine. He broke no laws, so far as we can tell — not by plundering his doomed company, nor by sidestepping all that tax, nor by giving no shits at all. The fiasco of BHS is a fiasco born of low interest rates, deregulated employment practices and global tax havens. We could, if we wished, embark upon the long, complicated process of addressing all of those factors. Or if all of this is an unavoidable, inevitable, part of modern business — rapacious vampires and all — then we could perhaps set ourselves the task of reselling anew to the masses the logic behind that inevitability.

Personally, though, I don’t know how to do any of that. So instead, like everybody else, I’m content to find a fully deserving bogeyman and shout at him. Well done that man, for being so bloody awful. Where would we be without him?

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.